New research released this past February echoes these students’ sentiments. A team from Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a nonprofit research lab, and Rutgers University conducted interviews on digital equity with 170 Mexican-heritage parents and children in three states—California, Colorado, and Arizona. All of the youngsters were enrolled in high-poverty school districts. Vikki Katz, an associate professor of communication at Rutgers and the study’s co-author, said school-supplied laptops were usually not the only digital device in these families’ homes, but emphasized that “the poorest families are least likely to have other devices. Districts filtering content means that those children and families don’t get the same Internet as their more privileged counterparts.”
What’s more, in-depth conversations with the families revealed that districts blocked YouTube at school, as well as on school-supplied devices, because some content was deemed inappropriate. And the consequences were steep. “Parents and children depended on YouTube to support homework time, including tutorials to solve math problems and to learn more about historical characters. The problem is that these platforms are multi-use, and those uses change too quickly for district [filtering] policies to easily keep up.”
This opinion is shared by Mary Beth Hertz, the art/tech teacher and technology coordinator at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, a public high school in West Philadelphia. In her role as a technology teacher leader, Hertz has watched the district’s filtering process evolve since 2006, with teachers now able to request that sites be unblocked and requests “reviewed by actual human beings instead of an algorithm.” Hertz said what many districts get wrong is listening too closely to lawyers. CIPA leaves a lot of room for interpretation, she said, and some districts opt to choose a strict interpretation to protect themselves rather than engage families, parents, teachers, and students in these digital-access decisions. “We should be blocking what the law requires, but unfortunately the phrase ‘harmful to minors’ to some districts means everything and anything that could offend or embarrass kids and their families,” Hertz said, adding that blocking content doesn’t teach kids how to “effectively, respectfully, and responsibly use the Internet.”
At the start of each school year Hertz asks her freshmen “Is the Internet a basic right?”—eliciting responses from a dismissive “no” to an enthusiastic “yes” and prompting comparisons to China, where access to the Internet is restricted. A room of 14-year-olds is able to grasp what some school leaders seem to overlook.
“They understand that this connection is not a life-or-death situation, but that it affords opportunity. They also have a basic understanding of oppression and the idea that limiting access to the Internet limits people from opportunity,” said Hertz. “We sometimes think too much about the content that we block, and we forget [that] when we cut kids off [from social media] we limit their opportunities to succeed, explore their passions, and discover their strengths and talents.”